It may seem strange to hear this Gospel (Luke 23:33-43) for the Festival of Christ the King. At first glance, this traditional Good Friday text at the end of November seems as odd to me as Christmas in July.
So, right off the bat, we are faced with a paradox on at least a couple of levels. First, the demonstration of the kind of God we follow flies in the face of everything the world values as powerful; a king who suffers for us and becomes vulnerable in a self-giving sacrifice?! He was an object of sport and scorn. No wonder the people around the cross laughed at him: A naked, nailed-down Jesus was scarcely a powerful king.
He was, instead, a sign of failure, weakness and incompetence. This is just not the way the game is played today in the echelons of power, right?
And yet, we Christians believe that the crucifixion of Jesus is actually his moment of greatest power. To lend weight to this truth, the placement of this text a month before Christmas invites us – indeed, prods us – to reflect again on the meaning of our discipleship.
Perhaps those who devised the lectionary were wise. Because the crucifixion of Jesus is not only a record of history to be read and remembered during Holy Week when we recall Jesus last, tortured days on earth. The crucifixion of Jesus demonstrates the whole point of our identity and mission as followers of Christ. In other words, Jesus’ reign reveals values of a kingdom relevant to us today. Jesus preached, “The kingdom of God is near!” (Luke 21:31); and, “The kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). This is a recognition that dramatically turns our reality upside down, if we choose to live it so.
Ultimately, should we follow this king we say we worship, this paradox must be resolved. But how do we resolve this strange juxtaposition of heavenly value of power reflecting vulnerability, surrender and mercy on the one hand; and on the other, the earthly value of power reflecting competition, judgment and comparisons? I believe this paradox must resolve itself not merely in a dilemma to be thought and talked about, but a choice that leads to behavior and action.
I remember a story my mom told me once when I was younger that helped me when I had questions about how to follow Jesus in this world: “There once was a great king,” she said, “that decided to share his wealth with his subjects. The king had a spacious compound right in front of his castle and marked it off with a large stone wall. In the compound he placed all his treasures and at its centre he positioned his throne.
“Then he sat down, called his subjects together and announced, ‘I am about to share all of my treasures with you. Choose whatever you wish in this compound — and it is yours. Choose wisely, and do not leave the area until I have dismissed you.’
“So his subjects began to scramble over his possessions, taking whatever they wished. In the hubbub, an elderly woman, small in stature and great in years, approached the king to ask, ‘ Your majesty, have I understood you correctly? If I choose anything in this compound, it will be mine?’ ‘Yes,’ the king assured her that she had understood correctly and he invited her, again, to choose wisely.
“The woman paused for a moment deep in thought. Then she looked hard at the king and said, ‘Your majesty, I choose you!‘ The crowd grew silent at her words, waiting to hear the king’s response. The king smiled at the woman and said, ‘You have chosen most wisely. And because you chose me, all my kingdom will be yours as well.’ There was abundant joy in the land that day, because the woman was much loved, and everyone shared in the king’s treasure.”
Not only are we invited this Christ the King Sunday to reflect on what kind of king and reign Jesus is and represents, we have a choice to make. Will we be the hands and feet of Jesus today in a world that suffers? Will we go to the highways and byways of our city, our country and our neighborhood to see the face of Christ in those we serve and those in need? Is this Jesus – the one who hangs on the cross – the God we follow, the Lord of our time, the Lord of our use of material wealth and our talents? Is Jesus the king in whose service we daily engage and rejoice? We know who rules the heavens. But does Christ rule our hearts?
We can choose: to play the game according to the world’s rules — competition, aggression, judgment and comparison; or, we can make choices based in compassionate justice, generosity, confidence, intentionality and trust. How do we do that?
Prayer. Prayer will move us from dilemma to choice.
I have the proud distinction this year to be the first in my extended family to produce my Christmas wish list. In fact, I had it ready last weekend, and copies to give to my rather shocked family.
Prayer at its best is not about presenting our wish list to God. Because prayer doesn’t start with us; it starts with God. Origen from the second century wrote that prayer is not about trying to get benefits from God; rather, it is about becoming united with God; about reflecting God’s gaze upon us.
We are told today that in the first few years of life, infants see themselves entirely mirrored in their parents’ eyes, especially the mother’s (p.67, Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs); “What her eyes tell about ourselves, we believe and we become … Prayer is much the same: we receive and return the divine gaze.” In other words, we know ourselves and our purpose in life in the security of the living God in Christ who holds us and continues to gaze upon our lives.
All forms of prayer are good and right and true. But without also giving time in prayer to be simply silent and still, to contemplate this knowing that is neither a mental activity nor a mere ‘good work’ on our part, is necessary. I invite each and every one of you to join our group on Wednesday evenings to learn more about this form of prayer called “Christian Meditation.” It is a form of prayer that propels us to reflect and engage the nature and mission of God in us and in the world.
But a warning: Christian Meditation is a way of prayer that exercises a surrendering, a letting go, a powerlessness that echoes the values of the Cross of Christ. It is seemingly unproductive use of time, so contrary to the values of the world of glamour, achievement and progress. But, in its very form, contemplative prayer is thus fundamentally Christian.
Because, in the end, it’s not about us, it’s about the kingdom of God – a topic Jesus spent more time talking about in the Gospels than any other topic or issue, values that continue to challenge us to the core of our being. We are more like the thieves who hung next to Jesus than we are like Jesus: it is hard for us to believe in the gracious God, in the forgiving God, in the God who would love us even when we disappoint and sin. Yet, Jesus last words to another human being before his death and resurrection were words of forgiveness, words consistent with the ministry of Jesus’ short life.
Thank God our salvation is not dependent on us, but on a loving, grace-giving, self-giving, merciful God. We may not be able to do things rightly. We may not be able. But God is. That’s why we are who we are and do what we do: Christ crucified; Christ risen.